This week, while browsing at St. Mark's Bookshop, I picked up James Longenbach's The Virtues of Poetry, a book of criticism published by Graywolf Press in 2013. To call this a "book of criticism," however, is to make it sound stodgier and more specialized than it is. Longenbach's book is a collection of linked essays, all examining what constitutes poetic virtue: what, in other words, are the distinctive excellences that poetry possesses, and how can we recognize these excellences when we see them?


Each essay is a delight to read. Longenbach, a poet, critic, and professor, is deeply learned yet wears this erudition lightly. He moves from poet to poet, poem to poem, now touching on Emily Dickinson, now moving to Wallace Stevens, now to Andrew Marvell.

Longenbach's writing itself displays many virtues, but the most impressive might be his ability to write clearly--and beautifully--about abstract concepts. Here he is, for instance, describing the virtues of that most unheralded of poetic virtues, restraint:

The poets I’ve examined were influenced by the plain style, but each of them sits uncomfortably to the side of that tradition. Rather than fostering a poetry of direct statement, they employ extremely restrained diction in order to suggest something other, something spooky or mythic, than what the language of the poem also denotes. Reading “The Sick Rose,” we know immediately that this rose is an emblem for certain notions about human sexuality, though we also know it is a rose. Reading “The Wild Swans at Coole,” we feel that the woods, the path, and the swans are luring us into a landscape at once physical and spiritual. The poems don’t require any allegorical machinery to establish this effect: the restraint of the language itself—the immediate sense that we are being told far less than we could be told—establishes a decorum in which the clear sense of what is being said raises the mysterious specter of why it is being said.

Later, he writes on the opposite virtue, poetic excess:

Keats once remarked that poems should surprise us with a "fine excess," a formulation that juxtaposes two Latinate words: fine (from finis, the end or limit) and excess (from excedere, to go beyond the limit). The formulation is boldly paradoxical--a limited limitlessness, a finite infinitude, a mortal immortality--but it is also accurate. For whatever else it is, the poem is the words on the page, and its drama of expressiveness is played out within the circumscribed arena of the linguistic medium, over which the poet has complete control. Chaos, like order, is in art a concertedly crafted illusion.

Longenbach works through several other virtues, including boldness, shyness, dilation, and surprise. In each instance, he addresses large-scale questions ("Why does a human being make a poem?") but always answers these questions by examining specific instances of poetic excellence.

If there's a central thesis to The Virtues of Poetry, it might be this: that poetry is language at its most exuberant and at its most disciplined, and that that we couldn't have the one without the other. Lovers of the poets Longenbach reads--W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop--will find riches on every page, as will those generally interested in the art and practice of poetry. I couldn't recommend a piece of criticism more highly.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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